Take a deep breath before panicking over the NYT’s 2013 top 10

Formats are false idols

A much-shared article in the Atlantic last week leads with the claim that the most trafficked “story” across platforms on The New York Times in 2013 was in fact not an article at all, but rather a “news app” about American dialects that reached its number one status despite being published just days before year’s end. The Atlantic piece then goes on to point out that the number six item on the same list, “The Scientific Seven-Minute Workout,” had also been turned into an app, though by an outside developer charging $1.99 for the iOS versions. The conclusion of the article was clear: If you want to make money and draw traffic in journalism, make an app.

But let’s take a step back. The most-visited piece in question is neither a story nor a true “news app”—which almost always involves some kind of browsable database—as both the Atlantic article’s subhed and the Timesown URL make clear: It is a quiz. It is a 25-item quiz that appears to register a separate pageview for each question. Even if it would top the Times’ list either way, a quiz as the year’s most popular content is hardly a reason to rewrite the rulebook.

Quizzes are popular. So are slideshows of real estate and sudoku puzzles. No one seemed concerned that items four and five on the most-visited list were celebrity op-eds by Angelina Jolie and Vladimir Putin, because we take for granted the power of celebrity. That a quiz—and especially one as good as this—should take the top spot is hardly cause for concern about the direction of the industry. But call it an “app” and suddenly everyone is worried that the story is no longer ascendant.

There is a perverse sort of logic at work in that reaction. At a time when newsrooms continue to shrink, it can be tempting to hope that if we just build more news apps, everything will be okay. But formats are false idols. Poor content can’t be saved just by making it “Snow Fall”-esque. Making work that is more technically complicated is not necessarily (or even usually) better.

The dialect quiz is compelling due to the depth of its research: Times graphics editor Josh Katz collected more than 350,000 responses in order to generate these linguistic maps. The piece is a fantastic example of survey-driven data collection and visualization, but its technical complexity is minimal; it consists largely of an HTML form and roughly 250 static images. It succeeds not because it is an “app,” but because it both asks and answers an interesting question about the world, the core conceit of all good journalism.

That quality content wins out in the end can be confirmed by looking at the Times’ ranking data comprehensively. Fully half of the items in the multiplatform top 10 list can be found on an individual platform top 10 list as well, suggesting that readers choose content they care about, regardless of where they’re coming from. Though making quality journalism might not seem like the quick fix we’re hoping for, at least it’s the job we know best how to do.

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Susan McGregor is Assistant Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Assistant Professor at Columbia School of Journalism. Tags: ,